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Allen vows long-term U.S. commitment on Gulf oil spill

By the CNN Wire Staff
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BP hires former FEMA chief James Lee Witt
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Thad Allen vows U.S. not ready to "write the obituary" on Gulf oil spill
  • NEW: "Static kill" well-sealing effort pushed back about a day
  • NEW: Coming priority is developing an "oil budget" of how much remains in water
  • NEW: Mississippi outlines plan to remove oil boom

Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida (CNN) -- Federal officials are far from ready to "write the obituary" on the Gulf oil spill, even as crews count down toward two efforts to seal the crippled BP oil well once and for all.

The retired Coast Guard admiral overseeing the federal response, Thad Allen, offered that assurance to Gulf area residents Friday, as preparations continue for the first of the efforts -- known as a "static kill" -- when mud and cement are poured into the well from above. The static kill has been pushed back about a day, and now is likely to happen Monday or Tuesday, so that debris that collected during Tropical Storm Bonnie can be cleared out.

That will be followed by a final "bottom kill" after a relief well intercepts the crippled well -- a step expected by the end of August. But sealing the well is not the end of the story.

"We should not be writing any obituary on this event," Allen said. He vowed that won't happen "until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are clean -- and state and local officials agree that the beaches are clean."

He noted that tar balls and oil will be "showing up on beaches for quite some time."

"We're still engaged in this fight, and we need to stay engaged," he said.

The next priority, after the well is sealed, will be getting a better picture on how much oil was released and how much oil remains below the surface, even though it's getting harder and harder to spot oil from the air, according to Allen

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Flights are going out continually to check for surface oil, including 103 sorties Thursday and 98 Friday, he said. But recently, little has been detected beyond thin sheens of oil.

In fact, there are so many flights, Allen met before Friday's briefing with service personnel at Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle to review air coordination efforts. The briefing then was held at the base.

Allen said a coming priority will be to develop an "oil budget" -- estimating how much was released altogether during the nearly three months the BP well was spewing out oil after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, how much was removed from the surface by skimming ships, how much evaporated, how much was removed from burning surface oil and how much was broken up through the application of dispersants.

A ream of additional data will come when the static kill is performed, he said. But in addition, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ships are combing the Gulf -- with about five operating at any one time -- testing the water for hydrocarbons that would indicate the presence of oil. Another method involves placing in the water modified crab pots that contain oil trapping devices.

"Right now, it's incumbent upon us to acquire as much information as we can," Allen said.

Another step expected in weeks ahead involves gradually removing the 11 million feet of boom arrayed along the Gulf Coast. It was effective in helping to stop thick oil from reaching shore but does little to stop tar balls from washing up from the ocean depths.

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources made that point as it outlined a plan to remove all boom off its shores by the end of August.

"While we will continue to see tar balls come on shore, they are scattered events that are cleaned up by BP contractors, and they maintain the capability to quickly move tar balls," the department said in a news release. "Boom does not stop tar balls most of the time, and the placement of some booms could cause severe damage to our marshes and property damage if we have a storm."

The department developed the plan after meetings with coastal mayors and county officials.

Allen's comments followed similar assurances from incoming BP CEO Bob Dudley -- that BP has a "long-term commitment" to the region.

Dudley, currently the company's managing director, stressed during a visit to Mississippi that the spill has been a "catastrophe" and a "real wake-up call for change." We have to "treat it as an opportunity to change for the better," he said.

Shortly before Dudley made his remarks, BP announced that it is setting up a $100 million charitable fund to support unemployed oil rig workers experiencing economic hardship due to the deepwater drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration.

The establishment of the Rig Worker Assistance Fund "fulfills the commitment" BP made on June 16 to provide $100 million in assistance "as a gesture of good will for the people of the Gulf region," according to a company statement.

The company also announced that James Lee Witt, director of Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration, will be advising Dudley on BP's disaster response efforts.

Witt, who was appointed in June to conduct an independent review, joined Dudley in Mississippi.

There was a bit of good news for residents of South Florida, the Florida Keys and the East Coast. A NOAA analysis indicates the region will be spared much of the fallout from the spill -- assuming the BP well remains capped.

"The coast remains clear," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a news release. "With the flow stopped and the loop current a considerable distance away, the light sheen remaining on the Gulf's surface will continue to biodegrade and disperse, but will not travel far."

Meanwhile, the man on the receiving end of much of the public anger over the disaster -- outgoing BP chief Tony Hayward -- said in an interview published Friday that he has become "a villain for doing the right thing."

"But I understand that people find it easier to vilify an individual more than a company," he told the Wall Street Journal. "I didn't want to leave BP, because I love the company. ... (But) because I love the company, I must leave BP."

Hayward will be replaced by Dudley on October 1.

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